First published in 1913
Published by Penguin Books in 1972
The story begins with Gertrude Morel. When she’s about 21, she meets Mr. Morel at a dance. They immediately fall in love and after a year they get married. Morel is a miner and they move into a small house near the pit. At first Mrs. Morel is blinded by her love, but after a while she notices that he spends most of his earnings on beer in the pub. With the little money he leaves her, it’s hard for her to manage the household, especially after the birth of the children. The eldest is William, then comes her only daughter, Annie, then her most beloved son Paul and last comes Arthur.
As the years go by, Morel becomes more and more selfish. He always returns late from the pub and takes no interest in his children. The love Mrs. Morel once had for him turns into deep loathing, and the children don’t love him either.
Luckily William comes at an age that he can earn some money too for the family, so they don’t depend on Morel’s money only. He’s a very bright young man and soon he gets offered a job in London. He gets engaged, but his brand-new fiancée doesn’t have any brains. Mrs. Morel doesn’t really approve of her, but somehow he can’t let her go. Suddenly he falls seriously ill. Mrs. Morel quickly takes off to London to take care of him, but it’s too late. William dies, without a sign of his fiancée.
After Paul finishes school, he gets a job in a firm that makes surgical appliances in Nottingham. He also meets a girl, Marian, the sister of friends of his. He likes to talk to her about his hobby, art, and starts teaching her some French and algebra after a while. Between them grows a close friendship, but Mrs. Morel sees her dearest son change under the hands of the girl. He used to be a happy boy, but she seems to suck all life out of him. Paul is torn between his mother and his best friend, but decides to break off his friendship with Marian.
Even though he has promised his mother not to see her any more, they still meet. After a while it becomes impossible for him to hide it from his mother any longer and Miriam and he start a love affair. At first he’s convinced she’s the woman he wants in his life, but after a while his love wears off.
About this time he meets Clara Dawes, a friend of Marian’s, at an exhibition where he’s exhibiting some of his artwork. Clara is married to Baxter Dawes, but left him a long time ago because he treated her poorly. She’s very active in feminist movements that want women to be more independent, and one of his employees at work. At first they don’t get along very well, but while his love for Marian lessens, he starts loving Clara more. It was considered quite inappropriate for them to start an affair, since Clara was 8 years older and a married woman, but in spite of the public opinion, they start having a relationship. Again he’s sure she’s the one he wants in his life, but when his beloved mother falls ill, all his time and love is absorbed by her. When she dies, the relationship between him and Clara is almost over.
The death of his mother affects him deeply. She was the one he loved most, and the loss of her makes him willing to die too. Then Marian stops by for one last time. She asks him to marry her, but he knows that’s not what he wants. Then at last he decides to go abroad and find the things he needs in life.
The story is situated in the beginning of the 20th century in England, in a working class environment. The main characters are Paul Morel and Mrs. Morel.
In the story Paul grows from a young child to a mature man. He was a very vulnerable child that, so thought his mother, should be protected for all evil things in the world. He loves to draw and design things. First just for his mother, but later on he starts earning some money with it. He’s a happy boy, but thinking about things like what he wants in life makes him sad sometimes. He’s also very bright: he receives high marks at school and is able to get a good job soon after he finishes that.
Later in his life he starts struggling with his feelings for the women in his life: his mother, Marian and Clara. He loves his mother most and would like her to stay with him for the rest of his life. Unfortunately his mother will die some day, and at one point he realises there won’t be anyone else left for him to love. He loves Marian and Clara, but somehow the love for his mother makes it impossible for him to dedicate his whole life to them and he keeps wandering between them. In the whole book he’s pondering what to do with this undecisiveness. When his mother dies, he realises Marian nor Clara are the ones he wants, and he goes elsewhere to meet new people and become a fulltime artist.
Mrs. Morel was quite shy in the beginning of the book. She doesn’t like dancing at all, but somehow Mr. Morel, a very enthusiastic dancer, can win her heart with it. This shyness disappears when she gets older and is replaced by hardness. She realises her marriage is bad and her husband won’t bother to help her fix it in any way. She finds it hard to live her life in a way she had never pictured at all, but she knows she’ll have to put up with it. Paul is definitely her favourite son. She’s afraid of losing him to another woman, and that’s the main reason why she doesn’t approve of Marian. Marian wants to have him completely, but Mrs. Morel needs him, because Paul’s the only man in her life that really loves her.
The book is about the relationship between mother and son, and the relationships between son and women (the lovers). That’s why the book is called Sons and Lovers.
The theme was quite extraordinary for the time the book was written in. Lawrence’s view on love, life and women was not shared by most of the men of his time. He shows women as independent, strong people that make their own decisions. For instant, Clara simply walks away from her bad husband and starts living her own life. Lawrence doesn’t consider this a disgraceful act, but seems rather proud of her doing it. Also, Marian is the one that proposes Paul at the end of the book. But the men were supposed to do that! This shows that Marian is a woman who makes her own choices. He doesn’t picture Mrs. Morel as just a dissatisfied woman that should do her duties in the household without complaining, but shows that she has the right to be disappointed in her husband and situation. And last but not least, even though Lawrence was not the first to write about the ‘common’ people (Charles Dickens for example had done it before him) he was the first to do it in this way. The difference between the two is that Lawrence keeps his story close to the people, and he’s not afraid to point out certain taboos. A good example for this is Lady Chatterely’s Lover, that was forbidden for quite a while because it was considered too explicit. Most stories that time were filled with events that sometimes weren’t very realistic to keep the reader interested, but I can imagine that the story of Sons and Lovers also happened in ordinary life.
The style the book is written in must have been quite new. Lawrence extensively describes the feelings of the characters and does this in a very emotional way. He also uses long dialogues and not so many descriptions of the area. This makes the book less heavy to read.
I think Lawrence created a completely new genre with this book, by differring from existing books in the two points mentioned above. He made a genre with real emotion, based on very modern principles.
The story is built up in a completely chronological way. There are some time gaps, which is inevitable because the book covers almost a whole life, but Lawrence doesn’t jump from present to past and back. The characters have more than one story, but these are all included in one story line.
The point of view changes several times. At first it’s written from Mrs. Morel’s view, later Paul takes over. Sometimes Marian and Clara are allowed to tell what they feel.
I found this a very nice book to read. At first I wasn’t so happy with the speech of Mr. Morel’s, because he swallows most of his vowels, which was quite hard to read at first, but later on it became quite amusing to see the difference between the sophisticated speech of Mrs. Morel and the children’s, and Mr. Morel’s typical dialect.
Last year I read The Go-Between from J.P. Hartley. And I must admit, this book was much nicer to read, even though it was written much earlier. Lawrence just skipped all the ( I think boring) information about the surroundings, buildings, flowers, churches, clothes and so on, and concentrates on what the characters feel. The book is not so old-fashioned as The Go-Between, and that’s what I liked about it.
I have certainly learned something about the time the book was written in. To me, it doesn’t seem so weird and new to read a book about the life of average people. But in that time, it must have been quite a shock. Phrases like “I hate you!” are frequently used and it doesn’t seem like sexuality is something you shouldn’t talk about. I was a bit surprised by that last thing, because I always thought that talking about sexual desires was not-done around 1900.